Jake Hobbs is an interactive developer at award-winning animation, illustration and digital studio Wonky Films, where he develops websites, games and apps. He recently finished a doctoral programme where his research focused on audience engagement and the monetisation of creative work in digital environments. For his 300 seconds, he drew on this doctoral project, specifically the problems with engagement in digital environments , and what that means for creative producers seeking to deliver original content.

300 Seconds Bristol - Jake Hobbs

Jake opened with Anderson’s Long Tail vision of digital content as an infinite shop shelf allowing audiences to consume a greater diversity of content, from popular hits to the very niche.

But, he said, research has shown the opposite to be true – independent producers at the end of the ‘long tail’ lose audience share, while the reach of popular hits is amplified by the internet. This is due to the social aspect of consumption in digital environments, which means we consume based on the recommendation of others. So infinite choice can limit rather than expand the range of what we consume.

Jake talked about what he defined in his research as light and deep engagement. Light engagement refers to content which is quick and easy to consume. This type of content is also easier to produce, which means it can be published more frequently. He gave the example of Buzzfeed listicles, which a wide range of people can easily understand and relate to, and which – because they are curated rather created – are also easy to produce.

Deep engagement, he explained, takes more audience effort, takes longer to consume, and requires greater active participation from the consumer. Deep engagement content is also more complex and resource-intensive to produce. Independent films are an example of this; they appeal to a niche audience, and require more effort to decipher narrative and characterisation, and can’t be produced very often.

But, Jake added, the instantaneous nature of digital environments means frequency is key to developing engagement. This means it’s difficult for ‘deep engagement’ producers to build and retain audiences – and therefore to turn that engagement into profit.

Light engagement producers have taken a lead because they can produce this far more frequently. A swathe of Buzzfeed-like sites have sprung up; by curating rather than creating content they can develop reputations and relationships of trust, developing audiences more efficiently.

Such sites, Jake commented, often surface deep engagement content, and can be attractive to the original producers as they offer exposure. But this is of limited value, as the benefits – eg advertising revenue – remain with the curator site rather than being passed on to the original creator.

Unable to maintain reputation, producers of deep engagement need to re-engage audiences every time. This has created the perception that greater value can be gained from curating rather than creating content. This is compounded by consumers’ unwillingness to pay, because there are so many free sources of content.

This, Jake warned, risks entering a vicious cycle – of drawn-out production, and an inability to return revenue to original producers – which makes the production of deep engagement content undesirable.

This could mean creative talent at the disposal of the UK’s culture and economy risks seeing their creative and innovative ideas unfulfilled, limiting future growth.

Photo credit: David Pearson